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South Asia needs a plan to address climate-induced migration

As extreme weather events increase across the region due to climate change, there is an urgent need to address the forced migration of large numbers of people

Natural disasters – such as this year’s heavy rains, floods and cyclones in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar – have become a talking point at COP23, indicating how such extreme events will increase in a warming globe. An outcome of such extreme events will be more forced migration, another topic which is slowly finding its place in climate negotiations.

Monsoon floods have displaced hundreds of thousand of people in South Asia this year. Tropical cyclone Mora – and the floods and landslides that came with it — in Bangladesh, Myanmar and India displaced about 851,000 people. More than 477,000 people were evacuated to shelters in coastal Bangladesh and as the storm moved northeast over land, causing floods and landslides, more people were evacuated. In Myanmar, more than 19,000 people were displaced.

In South Asia, where climate models predict a wetter future, extreme rainfall, intense cyclones and more floods are likely to displace more people in the coming years. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), has placed India on top — along with China and the Philippines — among the countries that face displacement on account of disasters. Storm and flood events drive most of the displacement in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Lowlands, coastlines and islands that flank some of the greatest Himalayan rivers are particularly vulnerable.

Mobility outcomes

“What we see here is a wide range of mobility outcomes — from evacuation and displacement to short- to long-term migration as adaptation, and planned resettlement,” Soumyadeep Banerjee, a migration specialist with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), told indiaclimatedialogue.net.

People in the cyclone-affected areas of the Sundarbans in Bangladesh and India narrate how they live on embankments and roads on a higher elevation until floodwaters recede, and then migrate to other villages and towns to work until their submerged fields become arable once again. Often, over the longer-term, people depend on remittances from family members who have migrated.

Policy challenges

The policy challenge is to look at disaster-related mobility comprehensively. “Often governments take a silo approach without an overall view of the problem,” said Banerjee. It is as though the home affairs office takes care of evacuation and displacement, the relief department deals with resettlement, and the labour departments looks at long-term migration — with officials hardly even sharing notes.

As climate change threats include intense rainfall, the run-off of melt water from the Himalayan glaciers, storm surges of intense cyclones covering more areas, and sea level rise, these factors act together with huge impacts on people’s livelihoods, habitats and mobility. As Saleemul Huq, director of Dhaka’s International Centre for Climate Change and Development says, it may not be scientifically correct to tag movements in the region as climate-induced at present, but in future there will be large-scale forced migration from areas affected by climate change. “South Asia needs a plan to address this challenge,” Huq told indiaclimatedialogue.net.

Official documents of South Asian states initially mention migration as an outcome of climate change, but they later largely shy away from addressing migration, a sensitive topic in regional politics. India has stated its position on climate change mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage in its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The document notes how rain-fed agriculture covers 60% of the country’s net sown area, with 40% of the total food production affected by frequent droughts, floods, climate variability and extreme weather. The document, however, is silent about climate-related migration. Bangladesh’s NDCs do not mention it either.

In Bangladesh, policies in general are silent about the adaptation potential of migration. However, the country now has a national strategy on the management of disaster and climate induced displacement, the result of several international studies and collaborative work by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and local think tanks. There is also a regional initiative by these organisations and other UN agencies to better understand climate-related migration.

As for regional consultations, a recent knowledge forum discussed human mobility in the context of a changing climate in the Hindu Kush Himalayas, as well as and protection challenges and options. The delegates — experts and policy makers — stressed the need to integrate human mobility in national policies on climate change, disaster risk reduction and sustainable development across the region.

Experts have been brainstorming on this topic. Huq, for instance, suggests a three-phase plan as people might have to migrate from the country’s low-lying coastal areas in 20 years. “The idea is to adapt, educate and plan. Right now we need to adapt to changes such as salinity intrusion and flooding,” he told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “Then we need to educate and train boys and girls to future careers away from the coast at international destinations. In the long run, we need to plan, enable and facilitate migration.”

Grim future

The Himalayan water tower of Asia, from where some of the greatest rivers originate, is a hotspot of climate change. The Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna system has one of the largest catchments in the world, draining an area of about 1.7 million square kilometres. Temperatures across the Hindu Kush–Himalayan region are predicted to rise by about 1–2 degree Celsius on average by 2050, according to ICIMOD. That will lead to changes in precipitation with the monsoon expected to become longer and more erratic. Meanwhile extreme rainfall events are becoming more violent and more likely to increase in intensity. That means more and varied river flow and in turn, more unexpected floods and droughts.

Projections of floods show more runoff into five great Himalayan rivers — the Indus, Ganga, Brahmaputra, Salween and Mekong — until 2050, due to an increase in the precipitation in the Upper Salween, Ganges, Brahmaputra and Mekong basins and more snowmelt in the upper Indus basin.

While models indicate that global warming will cause an increase in the average intensity of tropical cyclones by 2100, the north Indian Ocean trends are still debated. There is a possibility of higher storm surges in coastal Bangladesh and India, inundating places far away from the coast. Storm surges in the Ganges delta often move 30 miles or more inshore along river networks and tidal influence, inundating low-lying riverbanks and riverine islands.

Another threat for coastal cities and villages is sea level rise. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns about the increased risks for people, assets, economies and ecosystems from storms and extreme precipitation, inland and coastal flooding, sea level rise and storm surges.

Himalayan rivers are known for their flow rate and floods, as well as their high velocity and high silt loads, leading to a combination of accretion and erosion. While floods are temporary, the impact of riverbank erosion can be long-term and irreversible, thereby uprooting many people. Along erosion-prone banks people often get displaced multiple times when the rivers swallow up their homes and farmland.

Adaptive future

Migration experts are increasingly viewing different forms of human mobility as inevitable and often even as a positive and adaptive feature in the face of climate change. The 2015 Paris Agreement demanded that parties to the UN Framework convention of Climate Change respect, promote and consider their respective obligations towards migrants when addressing climate change. It also mandates the protection of people, the resilience of communities and the significance of livelihoods.

In Paris, COP21 formed a task force to integrate approaches to avert, minimise and address displacement related to climate change impacts. The Task Force on Displacement is now working on a set of recommendations to be presented at a climate summit at Katowice in Poland in 2018. Bonn offers a window of opportunity for experts, activists and policymakers to share notes.

This article originally appeared on indiaclimatedialogue.net